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Roads


When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

Meta


Topic of the week: Greater Greater 2024

Wednesday marks the start of 2014, but what about further into the future? We asked our contributors what they hope to be writing and reading about on Greater Greater Washington in 10 years.


Photo by Joe on Flickr.

Dan Reed: I'd like to write about how the region's ethnic enclaves, from Langley Park to Annandale, have become the new hot spots, drawing investment from around the globe as the cool kids finally realize there's a big world outside DC, and it's got much better food. Meanwhile, the Rockville Metro station gets renamed "Chinatown."

Jim Titus: I hope to read that that Metropolitan AME complains about DDOT's insensitivity to churches, while the city makes excuses. Church officials complain that CaBi needs to completely empty its 60-bike dock early on Sundays, to prevent the dock from exceeding capacity at the 11:00 AM service.

But DDOT says the real problem is that the new "trikeshare" three-wheelers used by most elderly parishioners each take up two spaces. Church officials concede that the dock never fills at the 7:45 service, which is generally attended by younger members.

Michael Perkins: Goal for the next five years is for DC to take the experience in San Francisco to heart and get serious about managing their curbside parking. Adjust hours and prices to ensure people can find a space if they're willing to pay what it's worth.

Ben Ross: Construction of a new Metro line through downtown DC, and new rail lines in the suburbs. And a reorientation of the Montgomery and Prince George's transportation departments, like DC and Arlington, to operate urban complete streets rather than suburban highways.

Canaan Merchant: 1) Hopefully I'll be reading about construction on a number of new transit lines. 2) Hopefully we'll see so many people on bikes that we'll need to discuss how to handle bicycle congestion. 3) How the city has adapted under new buildings that have broken the current height limit. 4) What the city has planned for an RFK site that is now focused on providing new housing/retail for the city and not more stadiums and parking lots. 5) How the Columbia Pike streetcar has aided in transforming the corridor and led to calls for streetcar expansion throughout Northern Virginia.

Chad Maddox: How the region has successfully absorbed many more residents while simultaneously managing to keep housing relatively affordable. Also, how the District has become a national model for its efforts to eliminate concentrated poverty and residential segregation in its borders.

Tracey Johnstone: That better coordination among local transit agencies, combined with the implementation of free transfer among subway, light rail, bus, and streetcar increased transit usage by over 25%.

Adam Froehlig: In a controversial effort to address chronic bike congestion on the MVT and the 14th St Bridge path, NPS and DDOT implement all-electronic bicycle tolls. A local bike commuter is quoted in the news as saying it will force him to switch to driving while another complains that the revenues will go to the private collector and WMATA instead of to path and bridge repairs.

And after years of false starts, the District finally implements a mileage tax. The effort is seen as a colossal failure as non-DC-registered cars are exempt and the elimination of the gas tax prompts Maryland drivers to suddenly flood DC streets such as Benning Road and Georgia Ave to take advantage of the cheaper DC gas.

Neil Flanagan: I'd like to hear Montgomery officials getting anxious about how successful Prince George's Smart Growth program has been. That it's putting pressure on DC to drop rents, but won't someone think about the historic Greenbelt gas station that's going under?

Also, "Daddy, what's a Millenial?"

Bicycling


Why DDOT chose no cycletrack for one block of M Street

If a church needs 3 of 4 lanes on a street for parking on Sundays, what's better: shrink down a planned cycletrack to a basic painted bike lane, or allow parking in the cycletrack some of the time?


No Parking signs at Metropolitan AME. Photo from Google Maps.

The long-awaited and much-delayed east-west protected bike lane, or "cycletrack," will finally go in on M Street, NW in October, but without protection for cyclists on one block. Many residents have been quite angry at the sudden change.

I spoke to Sam Zimbabwe, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Associate Director for Policy, Planning, and Sustainability (which includes the bicycle program). He provided some more details on why he and his group made the decision they did.

There isn't room to preserve all of the Sunday on-street parking on the block and add a cycletrack. Therefore, one of four things would have to happen:

  1. The block loses a significant amount of parking and flexibility, which particularly affects the church.
  2. People can park in the cycletrack on Sundays and during midday funerals.
  3. The cycletrack becomes just a classic painted bike lane.
  4. DDOT moves the tree boxes and completely rebuilds the north side sidewalks to create a sidewalk-level bike lane at much larger cost.

Zimbabwe and his team chose #3. If #1 were indeed politically infeasible, the question remains whether they were right to choose #3 over #2, or not.

The street today

M Street, NW between 15th and 16th has 90 feet from building to building, with 40 feet between curbs. Today, the road striping divides it into four 10-foot lanes. At rush hour, all four are ostensibly regular travel lanes, while parking is allowed at other times.


Current M Street cross-section. All diagrams by the author with StreetMix.

Metropolitan AME rents spaces in nearby garages on Sundays, but still uses a lot of on-street space for parking. The north side allows parallel parking, and the south side becomes diagonal parking on Sundays until 2 pm.


Current Sunday cross-section. (StreetMix doesn't have a module for diagonal parking, so this shows perpendicular parking. The actual parking is back-in head-out diagonal parking.)

On weekdays, the church sometimes has funerals where people double park in front of the church, and events where large tour buses full of people arrive. Buses need to let off on the north side of the street. If this doesn't happen against the curb, it would block a travel lane.

Can a cycletrack fit?

A cycletrack is at least 8 feet wide, according to Zimbabwe5 feet for the bike lane and a 3-foot buffer. On other blocks of M Street that have a similar width, DDOT will remove the parking on the south side (right side of these diagrams) and put full-time parking on the north (left) side, adjacent to the cycletrack. (At the corners, there will instead be mixing zones.)


Standard cross-section of 40-foot parts of M Street with cycletrack.

If this block used the same design, then the church would not be able to have diagonal parking on Sundays, or much on-street parking at all for weekday funerals.

People could park in the cycletrack

How can the parking remain? In May, bicycle planners showed some concept designs, like one that had perpendicular parking in the cycletrack on Sundays. Or, DDOT could put the parking on the south side of the street, which has the advantage of being in front of the church rather than across the street, and allow parallel parking in the cycletrack.


Potential design with perpendicular parking in the cycletrack. Image from DDOT.

Zimbabwe said he decided against this option because it could set a precedent of parking in cycletracks. Already, many people park in L Street's cycletrack, especially delivery trucks. Other institutions may similarly ask to use cycletracks for parking at certain days and times, maybe even during special weekday events.

Philadelphia lets people park in bike lanes on Sundays, also to accommodate churches. But as that link explains, that practice has then spread to Saturdays for weddings and other times.

Or, give the cycletrack a gap

The bicycle planners have chosen to give this one block a painted bike lane instead of a cycletrack. That's certainly a significant step down from the project's promise to construct a continuous cycletrack from Thomas Circle to Pennsylvania Avenue.


Proposed cross-section for this block of M, normally (top) and Sunday until 2 pm (bottom).

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is one (fairly short) block on a cycletrack that will be 1.4 miles long. Right now, there is no bike lane at all, and even with this change, the road will have a bicycle facility and fewer travel lanes for the project's whole length. He believes this is still a big step forward with just a small compromise.

However, just as he worried about the precedent of parking in the cycletrack, advocates worry that excusing one block from the cycletrack also sets a precedent. Shane Farthing of WABA told Martin Di Caro, "I'm concerned that if we start allowing individual private, adjacent landowners to essentially opt out of public transportation projects, we are starting to allow private convenience to trump public safety."

Another former DDOT official agreed with this concern. The agency will be planning other cycletracks, bike lanes, bus lanes, streetcars, and other transportation projects across the city. Some of those will pass by churches and other community institutions. This experience could well encourage other such organizations to try to reduce or eliminate any changes to their own blocks.

What about a sidewalk-level cycletrack?

Darren Buck suggested raising the cycletrack to sidewalk height and placing it between the parked cars and the sidewalk:


Photo by bikepedantic on Twitter.

Many other cities around the world do this. Here is one in Vancouver:


Photo by unk's dump truck on Flickr.

A painted bike lane is usually 5 feet wide. That puts cyclists in the door zone for cars, which isn't so good. Just moving a 5-foot bike lane to the other side of parked cars still leaves it in the door zone, plus if someone opens a door, the cyclist can't even ride away from the cars since the curb is there. That's why DDOT adds a 3-foot buffer between parking and its cycletracks.

But if the bike lane can be at sidewalk height, people might still be riding in the door zone, but that's no worse than on the painted bike lane. Here, if a door is in the way, the cyclist can ride away from traffic, toward the pedestrians, instead.

However, Zimbabwe said, this would be much more expensive, since DDOT would have to reconstruct the sidewalks and curbs along the north side of M. The curb cuts to garages would need changes, too, to stay at sidewalk height farther into the roadway before ramping down.

Plus, there would still be other obstacles on the sidewalk side of the bike lane, especially the tree boxes, but also parking meters and signs. That means cyclists wouldn't always have room to go around open car doors and other obstacles.

An even better approach would be to move the tree boxes and parking meters toward the current roadway, and build the bike lane on the sidewalk side of the trees and meters and other things. That means replacing the trees, but there aren't any really large trees on this block.

The big obstacle is cost. This solution would cost about $1 million, compared to a cost of $210,000 for the entire bike lane project, Zimbabwe said. And there's certainly no way to build that this year.

What's the right call?

Certainly DDOT could also have pushed to remove parking instead. Zimbabwe explained that the church was initially entirely opposed to any sort of bike lane, and by engaging with church leaders and members over the last few months, that position has softened. Plus, any bike lane is today just an abstract notion; when a real bike lane is in the ground, Zimbabwe thinks all parties may think a little differently about the issue.

Meanwhile, DDOT plans to study whether the missing block deters cyclists who might otherwise use M Street, and look at whether more people ride on the sidewalk on this block than elsewhere. Zimbabwe and his team made clear to the church that if this design doesn't work, they may make changes, even if that means less parking.

If we assume that less parking were't an option for now, Zimbabwe and his team picked the bad precedent of having only a painted bike lane for one block in the middle of a cycletrack, instead of the bad precedent of allowing Sunday parking in the cycletrack.

Maybe that's the right call, or maybe not. Many commenters on our earlier post disagreed, like Darren Buck. Regardless of DDOT's decision, this seems like a bigger policy question for future cycletracks as well. It would be good for the bicycle planners to engage with cyclists to discuss this question.

What do you think? Make a choice on the poll below, then give your detailed thoughts in the comments.

Bicycling


M Street cycletrack loses a block

The planned M Street protected bike lane, often called a cycletrack, will now be an almost-cycletrack: under the latest plans, bicycle riders will be able to ride protected from adjacent traffic from Thomas Circle to Georgetown except on one block, between 15th and 16th Streets.


Looking down M from 15th. Photo from Google Maps.

Martin Di Caro reported that instead of a fully protected lane, there will just be one of the more common painted bike lanes on this block. This is the block that includes the Metropolitan AME church, whose members loudly protested a bike lane at meetings earlier this year, since it would reduce the amount of on-street parking for the church.

DDOT Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe said that the detailed plans would be available soon, but I was able to independently get a copy of the latest proposal:

Bicycle planners were already willing to work creatively to accommodate the church's needs, such as with one possible proposal to allow parking in the cycletrack on Sundays. However, as David Cranor reported back in May,

When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. ... When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.
Having a simple painted bike lane on this block is not having a cycle track, and much closer to leaving the block out. It will indeed have a strongly negative impact on people trying to bike the road, especially since this is the first block riders on the 15th Street north-south cycletrack will encounter as they turn onto M.

Bicycling


M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger

Last night, DDOT representatives held a short presentation on the latest design for the M Street cycle track. They have improved the design further since we last saw it. Meanwhile, angry opponents of the cycle track, including members of a nearby church which may lose some on-street parking, dominated the question and answer period.


Photos by the author showing DDOT materials.

During the presentation, DDOT tried to explain the reasoning for the cycle track, how it would work and how it would benefit people. Jim Sebastian, Mike Goodno and Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe showed preliminary data from the ongoing L Street study that showed that over the last 6 months since the cycle-track was installed, biking on L Street was up 41% (560 cyclists during the 8 hours of rush hour, up from 396).

Over the same period bicycle and pedestrian crashes on L Street were both down a trivial amount. Meanwhile, travel time by car had increased by only 1 minute across the length of the cycletrack in the morning and by no measurable amount in the afternoon commute (using data after construction on Connecticut Avenue was complete).

They also discussed results of the completed 15th Street cycle-track showing that biking increased and that while crashes rose too, it was not by as much as biking.

Experience with L Street helps improve M Street design

They talked about lessons they learned on L street and how that influenced design on M. For example, the cycle-track will be narrower, with parking and loading zones adjacent to it. They'll put in more flexposts. And they're using a new "Yield to Bikes" sign.

Parking and loading would change very little. To deal with what lost parking there would be, they plan to take back some unused diplomatic parking spaces and replace some missing parking meters, as well as add better signage.

The schedule is to continue evaluating L Street until August and then install the tracks before the end of the summer. That process would take 3 weeks and be done in phases.

Other design features include the cycle-track diversion onto Rhode Island Avenue that may have a concrete barrier to protect cyclists from traffic.

Left turning cyclists can stop in queue areas within intersections to make a two-light turn.

The drawings included other design changes like a raised cycle track at a bus stop where the track passes behind the stop.

Angry audience comments almost derail the meeting

Before DDOT could discuss these things, the meeting got very heated. At one point, Zimbabwe threatened to end the meeting if people continued to be disrespectful with one another.

It started with a woman who asked why DDOT was going ahead with the M Street lane if the L street study wasn't complete. M Street, she was told, is a complement to L, so any study of L is incomplete without M. Originally they were to be built simultaneously.

But she was clearly opposed to the project regardless, she said with exasperation that "L didn't work," claiming that no one ever used it (despite the presentation she just saw showing that there were several hundred users each rush hour) and that traffic was a disaster. Why were we spending money on bike lanes when libraries are closing? She called the design confusing and asked who this lane is for.

But that was just the appetizer. Many members and leaders of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were there and they were not happy about the cycle track or the way DDOT had informed them about it.

"When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes," is how the first comment started.

There were many criticisms, some of them contradictory. No one rides on M Street. Senior citizens won't be able to cross the street to get to church because cyclists never yield to pedestrians (only a problem if people actually do bike on M). Senior citizens rely on the church for transportation. Other M Street businesses are not pleased either. The bike lane on the north side will block funeral access. "What percentage of taxpayer money is going to this?"

When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. Speakers proceeded to throw the "done deal" comment, which wasn't his wording, back at him several times. But he stuck to his guns. When asked if the debate was over, he said "for this street, yes." When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.

But the biggest issues were that the church would lose its angled parking on Sundays (which took them 3 years to get) and that no one talked to them about it until the day before.

A pastor for the church talked about the church's 175 year history, 87 of those years at this location. She noted that this church is tied to the struggles of the African-American people, so to not hear about something like this until after it was a "done deal" is very disturbing and insulting. The church had been offered $1 million to move out of the city in the past, but they had made a commitment to stay. Many of their members had moved to the counties but still made an effort to come to church here. "Is DC becoming a church-unfriendly place?" she asked.

On the first issue, DDOT created several alternatives for Sundays that would still allow 30-50 parking spaces, even one with angled parking and several that allowed parking in the cycletrack (which would shift in between two lanes of car parking) and promised to work on it with the church.

On the second issue, Jim Sebastian apologized and noted that he had met with church staff at the church in 2011. At least one person accused him of lying. Sebastian said he could pull the phone and email logs if needed. He also noted that they had started this process in 2009 with public meetings, and that DDOT staff have met with ANC's, BIDs, groups and individuals. He said they tried to reach the church, a comment that brought scoffs from the church's members.

I'll add that anyone on M Street who didn't know about this has not been paying attention. While I don't expect anyone to have read the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, the addition of a cycle track on M Street has been reported in the Washington Post many times. In fact it's been mentioned in numerous news outlets on many many occasions over many years. DDOT has had meetings and press releases. It's not been kept a secret. That no one in the church had ever heard about it until this week seems incredible.

Zimbabwe tried to address all the concerns. The M Street lane would have better signage. DC does not intend to be church-unfriendly. There is no "rush" to complete this, but DDOT wants to make people safe now, not later. They're willing to work with the church to resolve its issues.

He could have mentioned that in many cases funding for bike lanes can't be moved over to libraries.

When one woman talked about how important biking was for our future, someone asked her "Do you expect senior citizens to bike." "Yes," I thought, "many already do now." In fact many senior citizens in the church had prefaced their comments with "I'm a cyclist."

Another speaker, opposed to the bike lane, asked "Who wants this?" and many hands shot up followed by applause.

"We're not taking a vote here or pitting one side against another," Zimbabwe said.

A restaurant/bar owner on M Street said that the street is already girdlocked (despite DDOT data presented earlier saying otherwise) and that eliminating a traffic lane was going to be a disaster for drivers and for his business. "I did find one friend who rides a bike and he says he'll never use it," he added, while noting that gridlock causes pollution and that snow removal is a problem as well. "Every merchant on M Street is concerned and in disbelief about this."

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is to get new riders to use bikes. Many tried to point to data in NYC showing that cycle tracks are good for business. One person thanked DDOT for putting the cycle track on L and opening her eyes to all the great businesses there.

A Georgetown ANC member took the opportunity to berate DDOT for not doing something about all the unsafe cyclists disregarding traffic laws. "It's a miracle that no one has been hurt," he noted, without realizing he was contradicting his whole position.

Finally, someone asked, "can't bike lanes go in AND angled parking be kept? Why does it have to be either/or?"

Zimbabwe promised to find a way to address the parking needs of church goers.

And they do have a plan for that. Below you can see Sunday parking on the bike lane as one alternative.

Parking


Shaw church parking demand is nothing new

Church parking is a huge problem in Shaw, especially today. It's commonly said that the churches in Shaw used to serve immediate residents, and thus didn't need as much parking, but as their congregants have moved farther away over time, they need space for their cars on Sundays. But is this true?


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Mari at InShaw did some research and found a 1957 survey of churches in the "Shaw Urban Renewal Area." She writes:

Of the 42 churches reporting in the NW Urban Renewal area (see map), only 14 had 40% or more of their membership in the renewal area in 1957. Yes, that is 56 years ago, but as present day churches grousing about parking dredge up members who've been attending for 40-50 years as an excuse to ignore parking violations of members of undetermined tenure, I say it is fair to look at membership patterns from way back then.


Image from 1957 survey via InShaw.
In [an Examiner article from October, entitled "Parking conflicts prompting churches to flee D.C.,"] Lincoln Congregational Temple is mentioned as one of the complaining churches. On page 39 of the 1957 survey only 25% of its congregants lived in the area and supposedly of that, most were elderly, people who should be by now at home with Jesus. With the Savior and not driving and trying to find a parking spot.

In '57 a majority of their membership [were] up in Brookland and over in Kenilworth. It is possible that the church recruited a ton of members in the Shaw area since the survey, who then moved out of the area and come back on Sundays. However, I don't think that gives anyone a moral right to a parking spot, no more than having the right to use the toilet in your first apartment years after you turned in the keys and got[] your deposit back.

Shaw is chock full of churches, and some of them have figured out how to worship without double parking and the like. Sadly it is the ones who haven't seriously looked for solutions, other than breaking the law, who seem to scream the loudest. It is embarrassing as a believer, when some church leaders try to make parking a theological issue. Parking ain't in the Bible.

The parking problem has grown especially acute recently. Residents petitioned DDOT to extend residential permit parking (RPP) to Sundays, meaning churchgoers who don't live in the area can only park for 2 hours on RPP blocks and not at all on one side of every street. That has made it impossible for church patrons to use the street parking.

I also suspect that in 1957 Shaw had fewer resident-owned cars, so there wasn't the same level of competition for curb space.

DDOT has been working with individual churches for some time to try to find extra space that can accommodate parking on Sundays, like diagonal parking or space along the medians of wide avenues. But any such parking has to be open to all, not just churchgoers (anything else would be fairly clearly unconstitutional), and just adding more free parking won't ultimately solve the problem.

Many of the churches, but not all, have nearby office buildings or public schools with unused parking capacity on Sundays. There should be a way to work out a deal where the churches can use these lots. However, that parking won't be entirely free.

As we saw with the compromise the Washington Interfaith Network worked out for Columbia Heights churches to use the DC USA garage, once free parking is clearly not an option, suddenly a compromise that involves non-free parking becomes tenable.

The neighborhood parking also isn't entirely full, now that it's so restricted. It should be possible to let some people who want to drive to Shaw park on neighborhood streets, but there isn't room for all. How can DC allocate this scarce resource? The only ways to divvy up a limited resource is lottery, queue, pricing, favoritism (choosing one preferential group), or a hodgepodge.

Right now, it's favoritism for residents, with no option for others. The most sensible approach would be to set up a parking pass that's not free, perhaps also limited in number, which people could purchase to park in Shaw on Sundays. But the assumption that parking must be free, that free parking is a God-given right, is a straitjacket that forecloses better, creative solutions.

Update: The change to the parking included restrictions to RPP holders only on one side of every street. The original article did not mention this feature of the new policy. It has been corrected.

Parking


Churches work out pay parking deal in Columbia Heights

A solution to the chronic parking problems some Columbia Heights churchgoers face could be at hand. The Current reports (mammoth PDF) that the Washington Interfaith Network worked out a deal with the District government to let church patrons use the underfilled DC USA parking garage for a discount rate.


Photo by squidpants on Flickr.

Columbia Heights has a lot of churches with many congregants who lived in the neighborhood long ago. Many have taken advantage of better economic circumstances for themselves, or the rising value of their property in Columbia Heights, to move to houses in the suburbs which they desired. Others were pushed out by rising rents. Many of these former residents still drive back to the old church on Sundays.

At the same time, the population of the neighborhood has swelled. That means much fiercer competition for limited parking spaces on the street. As the Current story explains, parking rules in the area are suspended on Sundays, but only until 2 pm, which is too early for many who want to stay longer at church.

During a citywide "parking summit," members of many nearby church congregations asked DDOT for exemptions from the parking restrictions so they could continue to park for free, for unlimited lengths of time. Instead of more free parking, this deal will give churchgoers a $2 discount to park at the DC USA garage. The garage is never completely filled, as Target insisted on far more parking spaces than turned out to be necessary.

A key point here is that the churchgoers, who need parking, were willing to work out a deal with city officials without the promise of unlimited, unrestricted, free parking. In fact, the very fact that parking was not so available, thanks to greater demand and new restrictions, likely made people willing to think creatively.

It may indeed be worthwhile to subsidize, to some extent, parking for certain groups based on political necessity. What's important is not to subsidize it to the point of being completely free. When people share in the cost of parking, they might choose to carpool, or ride transit if it's available. They have a stake in keeping the total parking demand manageable. There's a reason not to drive, and take up a scarce space, completely unnecessarily.

Not all neighborhoods have a big, underutilized garage, but there are other solutions as well. Some areas have office building or hotel garages which don't fill up on Sundays, or other ways to procure some short-term parking. These can give churches an opportunity to satisfy their congregation's legitimate parking needs.

But first, it takes a city not willing to succumb to the first temptation, to just give out free on-street parking willy-nilly and create problems for others. If leaders resist this, many opportunities open up to solve the parking needs for churches and many other organizations which have a real place in a community, but not the right to monopolize all parking to the exclusion of others.

Update: negotiated with the city on behalf of the congregations to work out this deal.

Parking


At summit, people ask for free parking for themselves

Comments at a DDOT "parking summit" last night gave a glimpse into the diverse range of attitudes about parking in the District: almost everyone wants more readily available, free parking for people like them.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Some who spoke were residents who wanted more available and free parking on their local streets. Some people with disabilities wanted to have more available spaces but not have to pay for parking at meters, as they don't today. (Right around the same time, the DC Council narrowly defeated the new red top meter program, which means people with disabled placards will continue to park for free.)

A large fraction of the attendees worship at DC churches, and argued that especially because of their service to the community, they deserve more privileges to park for free on DC streets. Many represented churches in the Logan Circle area, which recently reserved one side of the street for residential permit holders 7 days a week.

While demanding unlimited free parking isn't really fair, the Logan Circle churches have some reasonable gripes. A few months ago, Councilmember Jack Evans suggested to the Logan Circle ANC that they try this parking change; the ANC approved the plan and DDOT put it into place. The churches, evidently, weren't part of that discussion.

This is a simple matter of allocating a scarce resource. Before, the policy on Sundays was to allocate the spaces to whomever showed up first or circled around long enough to find a space. Now, it privileges residents at the expense of churchgoers or shoppers or others. Maybe that's a better policy, maybe not, but we all need to acknowledge that it's a tradeoff; when one group gets more privileges, another loses them.

Pricing has to be part of the equation

One participant, Emily from Adams Morgan, pointed out that the current political system favors residents, though not for any sound policy reason. She was one of the handful of people who pushed for a market-based pricing approach. There's still a way to go to sell this to the church folks, however; many were grumbling and shaking her heads when Emily, or anyone else, suggested that a solution to church parking is to stop having it all be free.

But that's ultimately what we have to do. Richard Layman pointed the finger for parking problems at the way most District parking policies assume parking should be free. Thus, the argument always revolves around whether to give one group free parking or another, rather than to use tools like pricing to manage demand.

He took aim at the sentiment that because people pay for RPP stickers, they have already paid their share. "You think you're paying for parking, but you're not paying squat," he said. Angelo Rao, DDOT's parking manager, also suggested RPP rates are too low, noting that the current sticker costs only 9.6¢ per day.

Several people, including outgoing southern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Anne-Marie Bairstow, new northern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Gwendolyn Bole, and Friendship Heights ANC commissioner Tom Quinn, all asked for smaller RPP zones.

Bairstow said the current visitor pass program, which automatically mailed out passes to every household, is flawed; she has neighbors who have driveways and garages and still got the passes, so they just gave them to friends from outside Ward 3 or even outside the District, who then use Woodley Park as a park-and-ride.

What's the answer for churches?

Smaller zones and higher RPP prices are policies that should clearly be part of any solution; the only obstacle is politics. The church issue is trickier. I've been pushing for a system where residents buy annual passes, as they do today but at a higher rate, for their immediate areas, and anyone else can buy daily passes, maybe at varying rates based on public policy.

Instead of the current visitor placards, give each resident a "booklet" of free day passes to use for contractors, nannies, dinner parties, or whatever else, and let them purchase more booklets if needed. For a church that really contributes meaningfully to its community (many do, some don't), we could give the church even more booklets, enough to provide for a large proportion of their parking need, but perhaps not all.

There needs to be some incentive for the churches and neighborhoods to work together in a partnership. Churchgoers can reduce their parking load to some extent, such as by organizing carpools. In some neighborhoods, there are empty office garages; if enough people were willing to pay to park in them, they could open on Sundays. But the church community has to be willing to figure out how to accommodate some of their demand in other ways.

The booklets could form an incentive to do this, if DDOT could manage the total numbers of booklets and passes it gives out so that the total demand doesn't vastly exceed supply. Or, economists might say, just give the church money and let them buy however many booklets they need, though that could be legally tricky.

The summit did bring this fundamental tension into clear relief. Lots of people want the spaces. There aren't enough. Someone has to divvy them up in some way. A program of letting anyone park for free doesn't work, and the complex patchwork of restrictions and limits that DDOT has been moving toward doesn't really work either.

Parking


Diagonal parking: Does this quick fix get us what we want?

Last week, Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. introduced two bills to encourage diagonal (angled) parking. They sound like they'll increase the amount of parking. But is that what we want?


Photo by Diana Marsh on Flickr.

Both bills would require DDOT to establish procedures for adding diagonal parking. One would let businesses on a street apply for diagonal parking if 60% agree. The other would let religious institutions apply for diagonal parking, but only on Sundays, and with approval from the area ANC.

Diagonal parking means more parking spaces, which most business owners think will increase customers. But how do people get there? Who comes there? And why are Thomas' bills relevant?

DDOT already puts in angled parking in DC, but without a formal process. Requests usually come from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), churches, ANCs, council­members, the Mayor's office, or citizens. The requests go to DDOT's Ward Planner, the Parking Specialist, or the Curbside Specialist. Several divisions discuss the idea based on the need, construction or other plans already in place, and, of course, traffic counts.

For businesses without a BID, this bills to establish a formal process could be helpful. For areas where double parking for churches often happens anyway, this might be a way to make some peace between neighbors and churches. If these requests are common, DDOT should have a formal policy.

When DDOT turns down requests, people usually aren't satisfied. They go higher, to the Council or the Mayor, and the order comes down to put it in. Given that, why would DDOT ever say no to diagonal parking? Is DDOT anti-business? Is DDOT anti-church? Here are a couple of reasons.

  1. The street's not wide enough. Parallel parking requires 7-9 feet, travel lanes are 10-12, and bike lanes are 5. Angled parking, depending on whether the angle is 45, 60, or 90, consumes 16-20 feet. Unless there's an travel lane that isn't needed, angled parking isn't possible.
  2. The space is already being used. What's occupying the space today? If vehicle counts are high enough, then the answer is traffic. If not, there might be a bike lane or a sidewalk widening planned. To install permanent diagonal parking, the city needs to decide if enough space can be taken out of the transportation network permanently during the week. This is not an easy decision. Once angled parking is installed, an act of Congress seems to be the only way to undo it.
On Sundays, traffic is likely not an issue. While at DDOT, planners recognized that permanent diagonal parking often kills the possibility for bike lanes on certain blocks (11th ST NW between Vermont and Q Streets, for example). Does it matter if the bike lanes are blocked on Sundays, since there's so little traffic anyway? Can people on bikes simply use the travel lane? This might not be problematic on Sundays, but could be slippery slope to losing the integrity of bike lanes.

Now the broader question: Do we want more parking? It has generally been treated as good. But what else comes with more parking?

More traffic. It's a fact (proven over and over and over) that more parking creates more traffic. But in a retail area that seems barren, isn't more traffic a good thing? Maybe, but so is a good streetscape to make people want to shop there in the first place.

Diagonal parking has a traffic calming effect, but so to other techniques. After the protected bike lanes on 15th Street NW were installed, the number of vehicles driving over 20 mph over the speed limit decreased from 147 a day to 3 (a 98% reduction). Calmer traffic means people are driving slower, looking around more at businesses, and watching for cars exiting spaces. But it's just one tool in the traffic calming toolbox.

Diagonal parking is just one way to address parking shortages. There are many ways to manage parking, from building a garage to alternating pricing and time limits at meters. A bill that calls out a single solution to an often complicated problem ties the hands of experts whose job it is to keep up with innovations and to understand limits of each one.

More parking means businesses tend to market to people driving in, not neighbors. When residents can walk, bike, take the bus or a taxi to businesses nearby, businesses will cater to them. But when people can drive to your neighborhood restaurant, the restaurant will start giving them what they want, not what you want.

That means more emphasis on parking and valets, and less on sidewalks, trees, benches, bike racks, and bike lanes. While more parking for businesses and churches seems like a good way to deal with struggling businesses and too many people driving in on Sundays, it enforces the idea that these aren't really for neighbors.

More parking hurts the taxicab industry. Taxis are demand-responsive, on-demand transit. But the taxi system works best without congestion and when people aren't driving themselves. Taxis are also a great way to get home from bars at 2am, when Metro is infrequent and people do not want to be driving.

Are Councilmember Thomas' bills necessary? Do we need more permanent parking? If the honest intent of these bills is to issue procedures, and not simply to force DDOT to approve more diagonal parking, then they could have some benefit, but may not be necessary. But let us not forget that more parking often comes at the price of other aspects of city life we enjoy.

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